CIOs and are IT functions are facing many challenges caused by the digital revolution that is happening in every sector. For some CIOs the challenge is being able to cope with the demand for new technologies, solutions and services whilst in other organisations the IT function is struggling to move at the speed required for digital. But in some respects they are the lucky ones; they are at least involved in their organisation’s digital initiatives. Other CIOs are not so fortunate.
I recently spoke at an event for IT leaders from the charity sector about digital disruption and the challenges and opportunities this presented to IT. Based on the questions I was asked at the end of my presentation and the discussions I had with many of the attendees in the networking session after the event, it is clear that the role played by CIOs and IT functions varies greatly across this sector as it does across every other industry. Some of the CIOs I spoke to were playing a leading role in driving the digital development of their organisation either because they were specifically tasked to do so or in some cases because they took the initiative themselves and started talking about and promoting digital before anyone else in their organisation.
However, for the majority of the IT leaders at the event the situation was very different, ranging from working alongside a “digital department” that sat outside the IT function, being involved in some digital initiatives but not others, or not being involved in digital at all.
There are many reasons for this mixed picture. For some it is based on past events where the IT function has failed to perform or deliver on time, lacked the ability or desire to engage in initiatives that were not started in the department, or was viewed as being too slow or as a barrier to getting things done. In some cases the IT function is not being involved due to a flawed understanding of what digital is about or a very narrow definition of digital that focused purely on, say, digital marketing.
Regardless of the reason for the IT function’s limited role in digital, one thing is clear: any technology solution that is implemented without the support or involvement of IT has the potential to expose the organisation to a range of risks and problems in areas such as security, privacy, integration, resilience, scalability, vendor lock-in, etc. And judging by the experiences of a number of CIOs I have spoken to recently, organisations that have allowed other functions to invest in technology without the involvement or knowledge of their IT function are now encountering such issues. Indeed the fact that some IT functions are now more involved in digital is a direct result of the problems caused by IT not being involved in technology decisions in the past.
As more organisations experience problems related to technology solutions that have been implemented without advice, support or guidance from the IT function, we will no doubt see the level of IT involvement in digital initiatives continue to increase. And it is my view that, if CIOs in these organisations do the right things in the meantime, we will eventually reach the point where they and the IT function are recognised as a key part of every digital initiative and may well be given the task of leading on digital.
So what are those right things? What should CIOs be doing to ensure that, as the digital tide turns back towards IT, they and their teams are still in the game and can capitalise on the opportunities this change will bring them. Here are five steps CIOs can take to ensure they stay in the game:
- Stay engaged: build and develop strong relationships with all areas of the business and regularly spend time with key stakeholders, keep offering help and support to teams that are making their own technology decisions, offer to attend meetings with vendors, ask for updates on progress and issues, stay abreast of what solutions and vendors they are using and keep up-to-date on how these are performing both within your organisation and beyond. Even if this is met by resistance or reluctance, keep communicating and stay connected and do not under any circumstances disengage. If IT has no involvement in, or knowledge of, solutions being used by other functions then will it will be very hard to step-in and resolve problems when they happen. And in some cases the IT function’s lack of engagement could even be cited as a cause of the problems being experienced.
- Change the perception of IT: if the IT function is not being involved in digital initiatives it is very likely because the CIO and/or their department has a poor reputation or lacks credibility when it comes to the newer technologies, approaches and ideas associated with digital. CIOs need to change this perception; the IT function has to be viewed as the obvious answer to a problem when it arises. If necessary CIOs may need to reposition and rebrand themselves as well as the IT function. The repositioning and rebranding of the CIO role and the IT function covered in detail in my book, Disrupt IT.
- Change the IT function: perception is important but it needs to be backed-up with capability so that when IT is called upon to rescue or support a digital initiative it can deliver what the business needs and at the speed it is needed. The IT function plays a different role in the digital age and it needs different skills and ways of working to perform this role. This new role – the technology and service broker – and the steps the CIO needs to take to transform the IT function are also covered in Disrupt IT. As the transformation of the IT function gathers momentum and the new capabilities are established and skills acquired, CIOs will find that steps one and two will become easier and this in turn is likely to accelerate the process of IT becoming involved in all digital initiatives.
- Choose your battles: there will be times when IT does not agree with a solution, technology or vendor proposed by another function. Traditionally, as the organisation’s gatekeeper, the IT function would be able to block any such proposal and the other functions would have little choice but to comply with IT’s processes, policies and standards. However, with other functions now holding their own IT budgets, the need to move quickly and the availability of cloud-based services that do not need IT involvement to set-up and access, IT can no longer play the gatekeeper role. It can offer advice, guidance and information to other functions and it can try to influence their decisions but it will find it hard to stop an IT investment without an extremely compelling reason. As a result the CIO will need to take a more pragmatic approach to solutions that may not fit with the organisation’s polices and standards; they need to balance the risks of using such a solution against the value to the organisation and the potential damage to IT’s reputation if it seen to be blocking something the business believes it needs. This may mean allowing some investments to go ahead against IT’s better judgement to ensure the department is involved next time there is a decision to be made. An IT function that regularly opposes the plans of other functions is also less likely to be listened to when it objects to a solution that exposes the organisation to an unacceptable level of risk.
- Play the long game: IT professionals are very good at identifying risks and spotting potential problems. They are also prone to sharing these with staff from other departments at the earliest opportunity. This can be frustrating for staff from other functions that do not think or work in the same way. And, even though IT staff are usually right, their observations are not always well received by other functions who often view such contributions as being negative or obstructive. Timing is everything when it comes to raising an issue – a valid issue raised at the wrong time will not be received well and may even damage IT’s credibility and relationships with other functions. IT staff need to learn to be patient when it comes to sharing potential risks and problems. And in some cases this may mean allowing/helping other staff to identify an issue for themselves further down the line or even allowing some things to continue to a point at which a risk is realised before stepping in.
To be successful in digital markets organisations need an engaged CIO and IT function. Some organisations already understand this whilst others are learning the hard way and are now turning to the IT department to resolve issues caused by other functions bypassing IT in the past. This emerging trend is an opportunity for CIOs and their teams to play a leading role in digital in all organisations. It may take some time to happen in every organisation but if CIOs stay in the game and prepare for the time when they are needed, they will be well placed to capitalise on this opportunity.